In a European report on women's health, Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws have been criticised

A EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER for Human Rights has released a report that criticises Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

A report published today by Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks singled out Ireland as an example of a country with highly restrictive abortion laws which “can have a broad range of physical, psychological, financial and social impacts on women, with implications for their health and well-being”.

Over four fifths of all Council of Europe member states have legalised abortion on
a woman’s request, with 36 out of 40 of that total having a time limit ranging from 10 to 24 weeks.

The report namechecks eight regions in Europe where this isn’t the case: Andorra, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Northern Ireland, Poland and San Marino.

It says that they “all retain highly restrictive laws that forbid women’s access to abortion except in extremely limited circumstances”.

Andorra and Malta prohibit abortion in all situations. In Ireland, abortion is legal only to avert a substantial risk to a woman’s life and in San Marino life saving care is permitted as criminal law exception.

“In Northern Ireland, the sole exceptions are for risks to a woman’s life or health.”

It also criticised the fact that a woman who tries to access abortion in Ireland, through ordering a pill online, for example, could face up to 14 years in prison for doing so.

“Because of the legal consequences,” the report said, “women in these countries who resort to clandestine abortion are often afraid to seek post-abortion care if complications arise, with potentially severe consequences for their health.

“This fear is often well founded – in some of these jurisdictions women who have had illegal abortions, or family members who assisted them, have subsequently faced criminal prosecution and penalties.”

The report has been published days before the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment is due to make recommendations on whether to amend or remove it from the Irish constitution.

In April, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution be replaced or amended, not repealed. What the assembly recommended would represent a significant liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

Mellet v Ireland and Whelan v Ireland

The report highlighted two court cases taken against the Irish State by two women who had received a diagnoses of fatal foetal impairment from their doctors.

Following routine tests they were each informed that the foetus they were carrying would die in utero or would not survive long after birth.

On receiving this news, each woman found the prospect of continuing her pregnancy unbearable.

However, because Irish law prohibits abortion in all situations except when a pregnant woman’s life is at “real and substantial” risk, they were informed by their doctors that in Ireland carrying the pregnancy to term was their only option; to end the pregnancy, they would have to seek abortion care in another country.

Both women thus arranged to travel with their husbands at their own expense to hospitals in the United Kingdom, where they received abortion care.

They were not given any further information, advice or assistance from medical professionals in Ireland. In both cases, they had to leave the remains of their stillborn babies behind them for cremation and later received the ashes in the post.

When the women brought their cases to the Human Rights Convention, it ruled that suffering could have been avoided if the woman had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of their own country and under the care of health professionals whom they knew and trusted.

It recognised that Ireland’s laws compelled each woman to choose between continuing a non-viable pregnancy or travelling to another country at personal expense and separated from the support of her family and that this forced them to bear significant financial, psychological and physical burdens that intensified their suffering.

It found that “the shame and stigma associated with the criminalisation of abortion” exacerbated the women’s suffering.

Muižnieks said that the effects on women’s physical and mental health were often intensified for certain groups of women, including adolescents, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, women at risk of domestic violence, and women living in rural areas.

Symphysiotomy 

The report also mentioned Ireland’s compensation of women who underwent symphysiotomy procedures up until the 1980s.

A surgical procedure that involves dividing a pregnant woman’s pelvis to facilitate vaginal childbirth were carried out on around 1,500 women in Ireland without their informed consent.

But the report says that Ireland has “yet to investigate the practice in an impartial, independent and thorough way, including by hearing the testimony of the alleged victims, and ensuring that victims receive prompt and adequate redress”.

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